Getting your photo published by CNN, or having the BBC follow up on a story lead you’ve emailed or sent in by short message text (or Twitter) is often its own reward. Whatever your motivation might have been – civic duty, anger, impressing your friends, ambition – it’s a kick for many just to see their name in pixels.

But what if your publication is not as famous as these giant attractors of User Generated Content? Or if the news sent in by citizen journalists is only going to be published on-line in a small town web site? Is the ‘kick’ still there?

And, some related questions: even when a user generates great content and has a great experience doing so, or even when a citizen generates a good bit of journalism, why is the drop off rate so high? Even serious blogging sites see high attrition rates, with only a small group of hard-core bloggers blogging with reasonable regularity (and who knows what that is?!).

This is something we’re giving a lot of thought and energy to as part of the_ Iindaba Ziyafika_ project in Grahamstown, South Africa. We building platforms for user generated content and citizen journalism, and we’re proving training to hundreds of school children on how to use the old/new technology of sms to contribute their issues, views, news, info, tips, photos.

But how much uptake will there be, even after the 2009 training? What will keep users coming back to contribute more, and how, in resource deprived communities, do you remove financial disincentives – the costs of sms and using data – from getting in the way of an enlarged public sphere?

We’re coming up with two sets of solutions – one educative, aimed at ‘preparing the ground’ for greater civic participation through the media, and the other compensatory and incentivising. Both are presenting interesting dilemmas. Here is one of the core issues to do with ‘preparing the ground’: in my next blog, I’ll share some of our problems and solutions to the issues of reducing financial disincentives and creating a series of positive inducements for citizen journalism.

It seems to us that the core question, in terms of ‘social context’ or public ‘receptivity’ is how do you get young people interested in journalism, generating content, finding their voices, getting their voices heard? And there is a prior question to get clear about too: is there an innate interest that just needs to be drawn out, or do you have to create that interest and nature it?

We’re pretty sure from our initial work in 2008, that only a portion of learners at local schools are interested in participating in journalism, making media, and making a noise! We also are clear that only a smaller subset of this interested group is going to be enthusiastic about it, and reasonably competent at doing it.

To galvanise this group, we’re creating “cell phone media clubs” at all high schools in Grahamstown, starting with four low-resource schools, and eventually expanding to include even high-resource private schools. These media clubs will be open to all learners in South Africa’s Grades 10 and 11 strata (the 3rd and 2nd last year of high school respectively), but we’ve decided to do membership selection based on a questionnaire and a short essay.

These clubs, launching in April, will do cool things, including outings to local and regional media outlets – converging newsrooms, radio and TV studios, web content generators — and a lot of training and educating in areas like the context of media in SA, learning about what media does in society, how do you write a news story and what is the difference between news and opinion. And there will be in plenty of debate and upskilling around doing cell-phone journalism and generating content for media.

We’ve already announced and advertised these clubs at 4 local schools, and entries are flooding in; people want to join and although we are not yet100% sure it this is just because of the proposed outings and possibility of club caps and t-shirts (which have not been mentioned to prospective members yet, but the word seems to be out there!) or because of a real interest in what the club will be doing, and enabling members to do.

The proof will lie in how the clubs are run, how much the learners get involved, and what material they produce.

In a perfect world, everyone votes, and everyone blogs or expresses themselves in some way, and everyone does their bit to hold politicians and officials to account. In our world, it is a lot more than half the battle to allow people to discover that their voice is important, their vote is precious, and we’ll never get the kind of services we deserve unless we hold both public and private service providers to account, through the media and through the ballot box.

With our core group of learners, selected for their curiosity, interest in technology, and sense of civic duty, we think we can create a vibe in Grahamstown’s schools that will make citizen journalism — and generating content that enlarges the public sphere and draws people into debate — into a plausible activity and something to do regularly. We don’t only want those members of our clubs to be making a noise: we want them to be the catalyst for everyone in their schools to give it a go.

I’ll blog regularly about how our cell phone clubs are going. In the meantime, we’re still thinking hard about what incentives will work best – cash, airtime, prizes, certificates, or nothing-at-all – to start generating loads of citizen journalism once our clubs are going. Any thoughts welcome!